Beaujolais is the current word on everyone’s wine-stained lips. This is the modern day red of choice, the wine to be seen ordering – and which has neatly catapulted Gamay into the who’s who of grape varietals. We’re talking pure fruit and lightness, the type of red you could chill in the summer.
It might not sound very connoisseur, but it turns out wine experts are sick of giant reds cloying up their palates and leaving the distinct taste of jam lingering on their tongues. And so they decided lightness no longer equalled weakness and the era of big reds was over.
We’re not sure who broke the news in Napa Valley but you can be sure it didn’t go down well.
Big reds are the wines you assume give plump aged men gout. They sit heavy in the depth of your gut, weighing you down with their rich flavours of wild blackberry, smoke and tar. They act like a sharpened knife cutting through your fatty meats and hard cheeses with bracing tannins that turn the mouth dry. An iron fist in a velvet glove is perhaps the most perfect expression to describe a glass of Barolo.
But when January is threatening to freeze your nose off and an après-ski Green Chaud is looking tempting then Pinto Noir simply isn’t going to fill that gaping hole. A bottle bursting with ripeness and a powerful punch of complexity, however, might just do the job. Instead, we’d like to argue that the mortality of big reds is purely seasonally, latitude-dependent and wholly suitable right now…
So we’re looking for something with more body, texture and complexity than a light red. But what exactly should we be searching for?
That extra oomph of power in red wine, firing us through the darker months into an optimistic spring, comes from a few areas of the wine’s production. Most importantly, and at the very beginning of the wine story, is the grape.
A grape like Pinot Noir, with its thin skin and love of cooler climes, could never produce a pungent red. The wines we’re talking of come from thick-skinned grapes ripened almost a week too long.
“Some grapes naturally have more phenols in the skins and more anthocyanins so you can extract more from the grapes themselves; for example Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have thick skins,” says Dawn Davies, MW.
Adding to that list of big red-producing grapes we have Grenache and Nebbiolo. Grenache is the dominant grape of France’s southern Rhône and when at its best, produces a wine which is long-lived, vibrant and complex. Although typically blended with Carignan, Mourvèdre and Syrah, it is the biggest grape varietal in the majestic wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Unlike other grapes which end up as punchy red wine, Grenache is thin skinned and tends to make light-coloured, reddish wines rather than the deep purples you might expect from this style. But as Jon Bonné recently schooled us – you cannot always judge a wine by its colour. Instead what makes Grenache produce such huge flavours and alcohol percentage is its love of the hot sun, leading to ripe, jammy, candied-fruit flavours and alcohol levels of 15 per cent and above. This is wine of gigantic taste proportions.
Nebbiolo comes from Piedmont, a small area in Italy famed for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Creating fruity characteristics, this grape tends toward bright, ripe, sometimes tart cherry flavours and when aged is easily confused with old Burgundy. Nebbiolo is famed for its acidity and tannic mouth and when made classically it’s actually a difficult wine to drink young but when aged and allowed to mellow for ten or so years these wines are staggeringly beautifully. Big and unctuous yes, but softened and pleasurable, absolutely.
Syrah, one of Dawn’s listed grapes, dominates France’s northern Rhône. This grape has universal popularity and as such is grown from Australia to America and of course, traditionally in France. But no matter where it is grown it has a reputation for making burly, tannic wines, big in both stature and body.
Finally Cabernet Sauvignon; a grape that bursts with cassis and black cherry and which is grown in two of the most famous wine regions around the world, Bordeaux and Napa Valley. However, it grows very differently in each, with the sunny Napa Valley making a more full-bodied wine several degrees higher in alcohol.
“Nevertheless, both styles will almost always be intense and well concentrated, with a long, lingering finish,” writes Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay in Secrets of Sommeliers.
Of course it’s not simply the grapes alone that produce the end flavour. When they all are plucked from the vines and arrive in the winery there are many methods that can be used to encourage extraction – from pumping over to yeast type to prolonged skin contact and then how the wine is pressed. Finally you have new oak barrels to age the wines which add flavour and tannins, giving us even more oomph to that red.
When overdone – as both the Americans and Australians, with all their gorgeous sunshine quickly discovered – these red varietals make wines that are cloying at best. It’s little wonder a whole generation who had been raised on more affordable new world wines were delighted to find a gateway Gamay. But once these fruity characters are balanced out with oak, acid freshness, sugar, and of course tannin, big reds will always have a place.
“Many of the big wines need big foods,” says Dawn. “Proteins in meat, especially red meat, break down tannins and so can pair with bigger wines, so too can rich sauces and heavier flavours. There is a common misconception that all big reds work with cheese but often the opposite is true and the tannins can feel exaggerated with the wrong one. They work best with hard cheese and definitely not, with say, a soft goats cheese.”
On their own, so long as there’s a balance of acidity and not too many tannins, these chunky wines make superior fire-side sipping. Beaujolais and Pinot Noir are beautiful, drinkable reds. Barolo and Châteauneuf-du-Pape certainly require a slower pace and a more engaged investment into pouring out a glass. But their era is certainly not over. At least not in London mid-January.